Baby & Toddler Sleep
Dr Fallon Cook, Founder, Melbourne Infant Sleep
Baby sleep problems are very common – around 75% of parents report that they have difficulties with their baby’s sleep during the first year. For some these sleep difficulties pass, but for others they persist into toddlerhood and sometimes right across childhood too. Given the importance of sleep for healthy child development and parent mental health, it’s important to seek help if sleep difficulties are severe and/or persistent.
In this article I’ll tell you some of the most effective strategies you can use to settle your baby for sleep, potential medical causes of sleep problems that you should be on the lookout for, and where you can find the right sleep support for your baby or toddler. Lastly, I’ll give you my ‘friends of Wantirna South ELC’ code and you can download my baby and toddler sleep ebook for FREE.
Top tips for baby sleep. You might be familiar with the following tips already, but if not, then give them a go – sometimes little changes can make a big difference to how well your baby sleeps.
- Darkness. Babies aren’t afraid of the dark. Keep the room as dark as possible to limit visual distractions. Babies find high contrast patterns (black and white) very stimulating so remove anything like this from around the cot.
- Boredom. The place your baby sleeps should be the most boring place in the house. Keep toys, mobiles, moving lights etc out of the cot and bedroom.
- Security. Make your baby feel safe and secure by wrapping firmly in a swaddle. If they can roll over then use a well fitted sleeping bag to create that lovely snug feeling.
- Rhythmic sounds. Steady, repetitive sounds can help your baby calm down for sleep. White noise can help, but humming the same line of a song over and over in a slow monotonous rhythm is a great way to lull your baby in to a relaxed and dozy state.
- Rhythmic sensations. Firm gentle patting on the thigh or bottom in a slow, steady and predictable pattern is very soothing for babies. You can roll them on their side to do this but always roll them on to their back when they’re ready to sleep.
- Keep arms still. Upset babies will sometimes wave their arms around, keeping themselves awake. Try gently holding their arms to the centre of their chest. Some babies find this feeling of containment very reassuring. If they don’t like it, try something else.
- Ignore grizzles. Some babies find it soothing to make grizzling, whining noises before they fall asleep. Before rushing in, listen at the door – if they are crying then pick them up for a cuddle, but if they’re having a little grizzle you can watch and wait to see if they are putting themselves back to sleep.
- Get the timing right. Babies aged 0 to 6 months can be very hard to settle when overtired. When you see signs of tiredness start your settling routine straight away. Young babies will stare into the distance and their movements will become jerky. If they are crying, then they may already be overtired so don’t wait until they’re already crying to put them to bed.
Medical causes of baby sleep problems
Medical causes for baby sleep problems are uncommon, but it’s worth being on the lookout for key symptoms that can interfere with baby sleep. A baby who is uncomfortable or in pain will need a lot of help from you to fall asleep and will wake up a lot during the night.
- Vomiting. Small spit ups are normal, but if your baby vomits large amounts after most feeds then your baby may have reflux or a dietary intolerance.
- Dry, rough skin (eczema). It might not even look that bad to us, but dry, rough skin can be itchy and uncomfortable, and studies show it interrupts sleep.
- Poor weight gain. If your baby isn’t gaining weight as expected, then your baby may not be getting enough milk from each feed. They may feel very hungry through the night and will call out many times to feed. Talk to your Maternal and Child Health nurse or doctor if concerned.
- Strange poo. Slimy, stringy, frothy, or mucousy poos, or poo that contains blood, indicates your baby has an irritated and probably quite painful gut. This might be due to an allergy or intolerance and should be investigated by your doctor.
- Snoring, coughing and gasping. While uncommon, babies can have sleep apnoea. This causes them to snore and periodically stop breathing during their sleep, only to gasp and cough awake again.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, make an appointment with your family doctor to discuss.
Often when medical causes have been addressed there are still behavioural sleep problems that families want to resolve. For example, if your baby has recovered from reflux and has been held upright to fall asleep for many months, they may have a lot of trouble learning to fall asleep when they are lying flat.
A baby whose feeding problems have resolved may continue to wake up a lot at night out of habit, even though they no longer require feeding at night to meet their nutritional requirements.
There are many gentle ways to improve behavioural sleep problems that respect your baby’s unique needs and protect the powerful bond between you and your baby. This is what my clinic, Melbourne Infant Sleep, specialises in – crafting gentle and effective approaches to improve baby sleep.
When it’s time to find help.
It can be hard to know if it’s time to find more intense support for your baby’s sleep. Many parents spend months trying every bit of advice they can find, with no success. Finding the right help early on can prevent months of fatigue and exhaustion.
It’s time to find extra support if:
- Your baby wakes up all the time. While frequent night waking is normal during the first 4-5 months, from 6 months of age three or more wake ups per night is too many for most.
- You usually spend more than 20 minutes trying to get your baby to fall asleep.
- Your baby often wakes up after only 30-90 minutes of sleep.
- You feel the tiredness in your bones. Your own lack of sleep is impacting your physical and emotional wellbeing. You don’t feel like yourself.
- The approaches you’ve tried haven’t worked for very long.
- The thought of months or years of broken sleep is unbearable.
- Your baby is so tired and grumpy that they struggle to play happily during the day.
If some of the above sounds familiar, then it’s time to get expert help. Looking after yourself is important and months of disrupted sleep can make you feel awful, increase your risk of having an accident, and can impact your ability to enjoy your baby. Sleep is a pillar of good health. When your baby sleeps well they are better able to play and engage with the world around them. Better sleep is associated with a range of positive health outcomes right across childhood.
I’ve tried lots of things to help my baby sleep – why haven’t these worked?
Some babies have a more active temperament. They don’t want to miss a thing and would rather be awake and busy at all hours of the day or night. These babies are much much harder to settle for sleep, cry a lot, wake easily and rely heavily on their parents to help them feel calm and secure. Parenting these babies can be really hard, especially if you don’t have enough practical support from your partner or family.
Generic baby sleep advice usually isn’t enough to help these babies sleep better. These trickier babies need expert guidance and an approach that is specifically tailored to the individual baby’s needs. For some babies, tailored advice is the necessary ingredient to make significant and lasting improvements to their sleep.
Who can help?
Your Maternal and Child Health nurse or family doctor can check for medical problems that might be impacting your baby’s sleep and can advise on your baby’s feeding.
In Melbourne we have Early Parenting Centres that can help parents of babies with severe sleep and settling difficulties. Typically these require you and your baby to stay at the centre for several days and nights. The staff will train your baby to sleep better and teach you new skills for settling your baby at home. Early Parenting Centres aren’t for everyone. Some parents don’t feel comfortable with the approaches used, or don’t want to be away from home for so long. These centres are very helpful for parents who are struggling with their mental health or extreme exhaustion.
Melbourne Infant Sleep provides private baby and toddler sleep support from PhD qualified sleep experts. Staff dedicate more time to your child’s sleep than a nurse or GP may be able to and can work with you via videocall. A thorough assessment of your baby’s sleep and settling habits is carried out, your concerns and preferences are listened to, and a personalised plan is developed that aims to improve your baby’s sleep at a pace that you and your baby are comfortable with. Follow up support options are available too.
Your FREE ebook download from Melbourne Infant Sleep.
We are thrilled to offer the Wantirna South ELC community our recently released, 76 page ebook, at no charge: ‘Understand Your Baby’s Sleep and Avoid Years of Sleepless Nights: A Concise Guide to Baby and Toddler Sleep.’
It’s packed it full of the most effective baby and toddler sleep strategies that we use with our private clients, every day.
To download your copy, head to www.melbourneinfantsleep.com/ebook and use code ‘WSELC’ to claim your free copy.
If you have any questions about our service, or would like to make a booking, please get in touch.